After locking in 9 years of tax hikes, Northeastern already facing higher costs for school project

The first phase of a nearly $100 million high school renovation is now expected to cost $2 million more than originally expected, said officials at Northeastern School District.

But district officials estimate that the cumulative cost of all three phases could actually be $3 million under budget. 

The school board will have to decide if that cost upfront is worth it or if it should stick to its original budget of about $27.19 million, as of June, for the first phase, known as Project 1.

The district already has nine years of tax hikes planned to help pay for the total overhaul, but district operations director Brian Geller said adjusting individual project budgets would not affect that tax structure.

Northeastern has built its capital reserve to $10 million in order to cover additional costs or pay the interest on future bonds, Geller said. 

Dipping into that cash would not affect the district’s planned increase of 0.22 mills each year — $22 more than last year for an annual payment of $2,669 on a $100,000 home — unless the overall project cost were to rise.

More:Northeastern board approves high school overhaul, 9-year tax hike

This hallway which connects Northeastern High School to the former middle school, now ninth grade academy, will be removed for construction of a new cafeteria to serve the schools' projected increase in student numbers in the coming years.
Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Berks County-based Kautter & Kelly Architects presented an updated cost estimate Monday.

Some notable design changes driving up the costs of Project 1 are more science labs at the request of staff —adding about $1 million — additional classroom storage, new locker rooms and roof enclosures for heating and cooling systems.

The costs of about $2.5 million for the lockers, $619,000 for the enclosures and $365,000 for the storage would be alternates, meaning if costs were to rise substantially in the bid process, the district would still have the option of pulling back, Geller said.

Including the alternates, Project 1 would be about $2.2 million over budget.

Or board members could opt for a reduced-cost option for enclosures without insulation and postpone the locker rooms to Project 2.

The roof enclosures are not necessary but could make a huge difference for the longevity of the equipment, according to the firm.

"I'm about return on investment," said board member K. Mike Redding. "I'm really relying on you guys to say the investment is worth it in the long run."

Proposed new student commons for Project 1 of an extensive Northeastern High School renovation project. Rendering provided at the end of the design development phase, presented to the school board on Monday, March 2, 2020.

Project 1 would focus on the middle third of the high school and would include a new cafeteria and student common space, renovating 40 classrooms and reconfiguring the math, science and English departments.

The old cafeteria was on the north side of the building and the renovations would put it in a more central location, said Michael Kautter, president of the architectural firm.

Moving the cafeteria and adding a student commons would decrease congestion as well as spreading grades throughout the entire building instead of ninth being on one side, he said. 

Escalation was originally projected at 3.5% in 2018, but with new estimates in 2019 at 2.5% and signs of a declining economy likely to settle, Kautter said, the total renovation costs are expected to drop about $3.2 million.

Design plans for Northeastern High School renovation project. The pink section corresponds to Project 1, which would be put out to bid October 2020. The green section corresponds to Project 2, and the blue section corresponds to Project 3. These updated plans were presented to the school board Monday, March 2, 2020.

That overall renovation cost is substantial, approved at about $100 million in June, including architectural and service fees, and spanning about nine years. The district actually chose the least expensive option, Kautter said.

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To build a new school, with escalation through 2028 or 2030, it would have been more than $160 million, he said.

To renovate, the district had considered two options, one that would put a second story addition on the high school and a cheaper option which would make needed mechanical updates over three individual projects.

Northeastern, like many districts, has updated its facilities over a number of years and is now coming to a crossroads of having to rebuild or do necessary renovations to its biggest building, Kautter said.

At its next meeting March 16, the board would need to approve the project budget based on Monday’s cost estimates, but the project would not go out to bid until October.

It’s slated to begin construction no earlier than January and be complete in the summer of 2022.

Most of the classrooms in the Northeastern High School 200 hallway, including this English class are part of the first phase of a nearly $100 million renovation project scheduled to start in the summer of 2021. The first phase is now expected to cost $2 million more than originally expected due to the addition of ten science labs, classroom storage, and new locker rooms. 
Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo